The Trouble With the Truth

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”

– Albert Einstein

Much has changed in the administration of local governments since my retirement from public service.

Good and bad.   

One of the most noticeable is the widespread use of highly paid public information professionals – the “spinmeisters” who serve as gatekeepers for senior administrators and elected officials, none of whom speak directly with the media outlets who once ensured accountability in the cloistered Halls of Power, now communicating exclusively through canned ‘press releases’ and orchestrated “statements.”

Most do a great job of keeping us informed, serving as a single point of information, especially during times of crisis. But make no mistake – as the official mouthpiece, the “PIO” reflects the character of the organization they represent.

“In my day,” public officials developed close working relationships with individual reporters based upon mutual trust – the daily exchange of information that kept the public informed – and I was honored to serve with some of the best in the business.

All these years later, I still maintain friendships with some of the hardworking print and television news reporters I had the pleasure of working with. 

The inviolate rule was to never breach that sacred trust, and I learned early that when my agency made a mistake (and I made some doozies) – it was important to air the dirty laundry – admit the error, explain the circumstances without excuse or embroidery, apologize to constituents, and set about making things right. 

Could that soul-bearing exercise be painful? 

You bet it was. 

That’s the trouble with the truth.  It is difficult – but essential. 

However, the alternative of allowing issues to fester into scandals can be disastrous – and any Public Relations pro will tell you the cover-up is always worse than the crime.  Because once a government official or entity loses the public trust, it is nearly impossible to win it back. 

Unfortunately, when elected and appointed officials begin circling the wagons and pulling the shades, things quickly deteriorate – and a domino effect of distrust can quickly spread – especially to those charged with the oversight of governmental operations where even the appearance of impropriety can have wide-ranging implications.  

In my view, the most recent example of this bureaucratic sleight-of-hand is the on-going conflagration at the Volusia County Department of Corrections following revelations of horrific inmate abuse – including allegations by former Department of Corrections Director Mark Flowers that he is being retaliated against by senior administrators for blowing the whistle on issues at the jail. 

Much of what we know about this disturbing controversy initially came from Mr. Flowers’ attorney, Kelly Chanfrau, as reported by The Daytona Beach News-Journal – revelations which were followed by counter-accusations from Volusia County – including claims that an internal investigation by Human Resources sustained a laundry list of violations against Flowers that include ordering the isolation of inmates, violating suicide protocols, creating a hostile workplace, and directing that corrections officers place an unidentified inmate in a “four-point restraint” – naked – for days.

Ugly. 

Now, things have gone from bad to worse.   

Amid this swirling controversy, last month, the final act of that foul iteration of the Volusia County Council resulted in a 5-1 vote to gift County Manager George “The Wreck” Recktenwald and County Attorney Mike Dyer a 4% pay increase.  Only Chairman Jeff Brower rightfully reserved judgement until the various questions, speculation, and investigations surrounding the Department of Corrections debacle are concluded. 

As this rotten onion continued to peel, just hours before the Christmas break, Volusia County issued a self-serving release choreographed by “Community Information” Director Kevin Captain – complete with a chest-thumping “statement” from County Manager Recktenwald – touting the results of an independent review by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of the State Attorney of a single use of force incident when corrections officers intervened following a fight between two inmates.

According to Mr. Captain’s glowing release, “An independent, outside review of an altercation at the Volusia County Branch Jail in April found no evidence that corrections officers used excessive force while gaining control of a combative inmate.”

Wow. 

That’s a far cry from the findings of Volusia County Department of Public Protection Captain David Vanis whose initial internal investigation concluded, “Based on the information gathered during this investigation, I am unable to determine if the force used against (inmate Caruthers) on April 26, 2022, was excessive in nature.”

Of course, Mr. Captain’s spin set up Mr. Recktenwald to spike his apparent vindication from Mr. Flowers’ pointed allegations in a prepared statement:

“The fact that the review by the State Attorney’s Office of the interviews, evidence and circumstances came to the very same conclusion shows that we were thorough and transparent in our investigation,” said Recktenwald. “We appreciate the detailed and professional manner in which our internal affairs staff conducted the investigation. The suggestion that our investigation was handled in anything less than an appropriate and exemplary manner has been proven to be false.”

Nothing to see here, folks.  Keep moving. . . 

So much for self-reflection, a transparent failure analysis, an honest examination of leadership breakdowns, acceptance of responsibility, and the recentering of organizational values at VDOC, eh?

In my view, the FDLE investigative report – and the subsequent prosecutorial review – paint a less than “exemplary” picture of issues at the Volusia County Department of Corrections, with conflicting testimony, opposing vantagepoints, and differing recollections of the same incident.

According to reports, neither the Volusia County Department of Public Protection, nor FDLE, were able to definitively determine if the use of force was excessive in nature, resulting in findings of “not sustained” in the case of four of the officers named in the incident – and “unfounded” in the case of two of the officers involved.

Back when I was conducting Internal Affairs investigations, “not sustained” generally meant that the investigation failed to disclose sufficient evidence to clearly prove or disprove the allegation – while “unfounded” determined that the alleged incident did not occur. 

According to the findings of Assistant State Attorney Ashley Terwilleger, the inquiry was complicated by the fact, “Video surveillance of the area outside the cell provided views of the common area outside of the cell but no angle provides a view of the interior of the cell. There are no video surveillance cameras for the interior of the cell.”

As a result, the State Attorney’s Office found “insufficient evidence to proceed.”

I don’t know about you, but I find Director Captain’s slanted media release alarming – especially since Volusia County rarely (if ever) publicly comments on employment matters and pending litigation. . . 

Confused?  Me too. 

According to an excellent follow-up by reporters Sheldon Gardner and Frank Fernandez writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Report: Inmate, officers give conflicting accounts of incident at Volusia jail”:

“The FDLE did not make a finding on whether the force by correctional officers was justified or illegal. The agency, as it typically does, turns over its report to the State Attorney’s Office for prosecutors to decide whether charges are warranted.”

Now Mr. Captain – and Mr. Recktenwald – have a big credibility problem. 

I suspect FDLE – and the Office of the State Attorney – are reassessing this disturbing development as well. 

At least I hope they are. . .

In my view, this problem begins (and ends) with County Manager Recktenwald – who either knew, or should have known, of the systemic abuses, low morale, and dangerous practices employed at the jail – and that neither Director Captain’s release, nor his gloating “statement,” were an accurate portrayal of FDLE’s review.

Now it is high time for the United States Department of Justice to thoroughly investigate, provide oversight, and return public confidence to the Volusia County Department of Public Protection.

With significant questions swirling around the myriad issues at the Department of Corrections (and the executive suite) – this is not the time for Mr. Captain’s “cover your ass” crisis-management, skewed press releases, and the political insulation tactics that have effectively destroyed the public’s trust in Volusia County government. 

With a new slate of elected officials set to be sworn in on Thursday – the ceremonial transfer of power presents an excellent opportunity for The Wreck to finally accept responsibility and resign.

Because We, The Little People will never believe anything Recktenwald or Captain say again. . .  

I hate to throw a damper on the pomp, circumstance, and self-congratulations, but the first order of business for our “new” Volusia County Council should be to throw open the musty drapes at the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Building and allow the disinfecting light of day to shine – then hold those in positions of high responsibility accountable for the maladministration that allowed these disturbing issues to fester in the first place. 

3 thoughts on “The Trouble With the Truth

  1. Gee…..what ever happened to the “government in the sunshine law” that used to bite these politicians in the butt …..did that law get junked….it just amazes me that these incidents keep going on and on….and no body seem to know anything….of course the same is going on in DC too….God help us all…..guess us taxpayers don’t seem to have a say anymore.

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  2. Mark I am less worried about the Dept of corrections than all the crimes on mainland and the beach last week and the media that is left or right and nothing in between.Perfect example is the Gannett group of 360 local papers laying off employees and our news is biased like PBS vs Fox.CNN tried but cant be in the no bias mode.

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